Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol Portland Oregon

Starting Over: The arts fight back

Starting Over is a new column about arts and culture in the time of the pandemic. This is its first issue.


Way back before the Covid-19 virus pandemic sent us into a sad and alarming combination of hibernation and vertigo—way back before then, let’s say early March—I would have used the same two words to describe the situation of the arts community in Oregon. “Sad” and “alarming.”

I didn’t need the March 5 panel on Building Political Support for the Arts in Portland to make me think that, but the conclusion was unavoidable after the panel members testified. It was pretty glum. It was also the last public event I attended.

I could quote almost anyone on the panel, hosted by Portland State University and moderated by Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan, to illustrate this conclusion, but let’s choose Dámaso Rodríguez, the artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre for the past seven years. Artists Rep is Portland’s second-largest theater company, 38 years old and counting. Its past couple of years have been financially tumultuous and the company is in the middle of raising money for a new theater space. But unusual in a public setting for an arts administrator, Rodríguez was plaintive, and his melancholy had an edge to it, . 

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is closing until at least September 8. /Photo by Kim Budd

“Art elevates society,” he said, quietly and intently. “It is essential to living a good life. It would be nice if public policy made that statement. I feel isolated. I feel alone. I feel like we [in the arts] have become experts at surviving, and public policy could lead to us thriving.”

Artists Rep is going to need all of its survival skills now. And if the people associated with the company do manage to pull that rabbit out of the hat, where will they be? Back to “sad and alarming” where they entered this particular movie? Back to alone?

I’ve been in a state of semi-depression ever since the sudden, unnecessary collapse of the Oregon College of Art and Craft last year. I’ve spent most of my life in journalism in Portland involved in writing about the arts—celebrating the arts and artists, attempting to understand them well enough to interpret them, tracking their triumphs and tragedies, arguing for their importance and specifically the importance of local culture. And yet, these hundreds of thousands of words that have entered the public discourse haven’t registered inside the society as a whole, especially the political end of that society: that our culture (in the broader sense) is in desperate straits and that we need the arts to fashion both the repairs and more dramatic reconstruction that we need. So, yes, if Rodríguez feels unsupported and alone, then I feel guilty in some way. I wish I could revisit those hundreds of thousands of words and make them more explicit, more convincing, more useful.

If you don’t have a local culture, then all you’re left with is commodity culture, produced to extract money from you and nothing more. It’s silly, empty, engaging, witty, catchy. Also sexist, racist, xenophobic. It manipulates the darker side of the human experience because it knows it can get a rise out of you. It doesn’t worry about the consequences—it has not morality or ethics. It’s whatever it takes to move money from your account to THEIR account.


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You cannot build a successful society on this sand. The arts remind us of this, and local arts (at their best) adapt to our needs. For all of the decades I’ve lived here, they’ve been warning us about climate change, our racism and sexism, the deterioration of the environment, how closed we are to new ideas from other places, how we’ve replaced real, local culture with empty commercial culture. No wonder the arts have been unpopular. Of course, they have other functions, too: consolation, reconciliation, celebration, meditation, transport to experiences we don’t visit nearly often enough—delight, whimsy, a sense of belonging. How much do we need those things RIGHT NOW?

So, yes, that’s my mission as I start this column. I’m militant about it. We need schools at every level that teach the arts with passion and care. We need arts centers all over the state and especially in Portland, where we can meet to learn, make and experience our best thoughts and ideas. We need cultural institutions that we acknowledge to be central to our society and fund at far greater levels than we do now. We need to surround ourselves with the best art our artists can make, and pay for them appropriately. If we take care of the arts, the arts will take care of us. There’s no better deal in American society than this one.

Think of this as a statement of intent? I’m going to be writing a regular column about building a better local culture. How we respond culturally to the pandemic is one of the subjects. How we can design a culture that is better prepared for the next crisis—and I’m certain crises are coming—is another. In Damaso’s words, we don’t just want to survive this, we want to thrive. I’m over my own moping around, and I’m ready to start negotiating, arguing, laying down the manifestos. I’m not neutral about it. I am open to the ideas of anyone who wants to help, and if the column works out, those ideas will do a lot of the shaping of what appears on ArtsWatch.

Finally, I’m not alone. ArtsWatch has lots of writers working the territory from their own perspectives. They are at least as committed as I am, at least as determined, and highly enjoyable to read! 



The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced today it will further delay its 85th season until September 8. The company is laying off approximately 80% of its full time-staff, artists, and seasonal workers in order to manage the financial impact. All laid-off company members with current OSF health benefits will have them fully paid for two additional months.  


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The Regional Arts and Culture Council is conducting an Oregon COVID-19 Impact Survey to measure estimated losses during March, April and May 2020 on individuals working in the arts as well as arts organizations. Multnomah County was best-represented, with more than 900 respondents (out of a total of 1,200), and they reported a total of $46 million in losses for the single quarter. The state total was $56 million. With the Oregon Shakespeare Festival cancellations, that will go up significantly.

What do the losses include? “Reported losses include revenues from lost contracts, shows and teaching work that have all been cancelled in order to comply with restrictions on group sizes, gatherings and requirements for social distancing during this health crisis,” according to the RACC press release.

“RACC intends to share the data to support efforts at the state, federal and local levels and to lead advocacy efforts and guide resource collection and distribution for individuals and organizations.”

The Oregon Cultural Trust Board of Directors voted last Saturday to use up to $10 million of its $29 million permanent fund to create an emergency relief funding program. The Oregon legislature will have to approve this use of the trust’s permanent fund, which is intended to “protect Oregon’s cultural organizations for future generations.” The trust says it is convening a committee of stakeholders (which to me is everyone) to develop and implement the program quickly. The RACC survey reveals that the $10 million should be considered a starter kit.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Barry Johnson has written about and edited arts and culture stories of various sorts since 1978, when he started writing about dance for the Seattle Sun. He edited the arts section of Willamette Week and wrote a general culture column in the  early 1980s and started at The Oregonian as arts editor in 1983, moving between editing and writing (visual arts, movies, theater, dance) until leaving in 2009. Since then, he's been thinking about new ideas to help make arts and culture journalism ever more useful and engaged. Oregon ArtsWatch is one of those ideas.


One Response

  1. Both your opening essay, Bob, and Barry’s first column were great to read. Keep up the good work!

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